You might have noticed the weekly food challenges have gotten more difficult as the Cook of the Week Challenge 2017 progressed.

With each new tricky food or odd flavor combination, our local home cooks have risen to the test masterfully. Indeed the creative use of ingredients is astounding -- and matched only by the recipes' growing complexity.

Before we get to the finale, there is the final challenge to report. While the judges had constructive criticism and praise for all of the challenge recipes, the scores show that Joe Wachter will not proceed in the contest. Going on to the Nov. 13 live cook-off are Ben Blake, Mark Clemens, Darla Pitts and Elizabeth Schuttler.

In the final at-home cooking challenge, cooks faced a mystery basket containing Sardines in Tapatio Hot Sauce from King Oscar, kabocha squash, courtesy of Tony's Fresh Market, whole wheat bread and kale from Savory Salad. All five contestants produced unique and beautiful dishes, if not always with a recipe that could easily be put together for a weeknight dinner.

The cooks' recipes appear online, but the judges here give their critiques. See what they came up with at

For the past four weeks, guest judges rated each cooks' recipes on creativity, use of the secret ingredients, ease of use, appearance and perceived taste. In the home challenge portion of this contest, recipe writing and organizing are paramount. That's because the judges rate the recipes, not the actual taste of each dish. Our celebrity judges will get the chance to taste what our finalists prepare, in one hour, at the Cook of the Week Challenge Final Four Live Cookoff Nov. 13, at The Westin Chicago Northwest in Itasca.

Indeed this week, the judges took cooks to task over a recipe's ease of preparation.

Our judges for Week 4 are Angie Murillo, manager of Tony's Fresh Market; Stephanie J. Dzugan, Vice President, Savory Salads Inc.; John Engle, President and CEO, King Oscar, Inc.; 2014 Cook of the Week Challenge winner Jamie Andrade and Chef Suzy Singh, the R & D Corporate Chef for Ellyndale of NOW Foods.

Next week: More about the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge Final Cookoff, the grand prizes at stake, the annual raffle, contest sponsors who will be on hand with samples and the celebrity chef demonstrators. Get tickets to the event at

Mark Clemens of Elgin made Halloween Kabocha Soup and Kale Salad for the fourth challenge. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
Mark Clemens' Halloween Kabocha Soup and Kale Salad

Murillo: Great job Mark, kale salad and kabocha soup sound very tasty and appealing to try out. Also easy to prepare.

Engle: This is unbelievably creative! Love the traditional autumn "Soup & Salad" combination. It sounds absolutely delicious. The kale salad with sardines is an easy combination! Well done.

Andrade: Love, love, love the presentation, it just screams fall and Halloween. I'm a bit disappointed to see the sardines weren't transformed but aside from that it was well thought out and looks great.

Singh: Love the theme of Halloween in this challenge. Great tip to massage the kale before use! It seems like there are two dishes instead of one cohesive dish. Overall, good job and keep on cooking!

Dzugan: I thought that the squash soup sounded wonderful. I would have liked to see a more creative use of the kale and sardines. I thought the use of ingredients in this dish seems appetizing and I thought the dressing for the kale salad sounded delicious. This dish was beautifully plated. It looked fantastic, and I thought Mark did an excellent job setting up for his picture.

This recipe did not sound difficult to duplicate, but I would have liked to see more detailed instructions.

I applaud the dressing ratios that Mark used in his vinaigrette. It sounded like it would be quite tasty.

In Round 4, Darla Pitts Chicago created Sweet Heat Panko-Crusted Sardine & Kale Salad, with Maple Vinaigrette and Roasted Squash Bisque for the Cook of the Week Challenge judges. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer
Darla Pitts' Sweet Heat Panko-Crusted Sardine & Kale Salad, with Maple Vinaigrette and Roasted Squash Bisque

Murillo: I love salads. This kale sale with the roasted squash bisque looks very tasteful to try out. Because we are in fall, this dish looks great.

Engle: I love warm toasted bread, cheese and a hot bisque in October. It is the perfect autumn lunch on a cool Sunday afternoon. And "sardine fries" (aka Panko crusted Sardines). I love your soup and the breaded sardines … I have fond memories of the days as a young boy fishing smelt from Lake Michigan, breading them in much the same fashion and frying them. Delicious!

Andrade: This looks delicious, but when I think soup and salad, I'm thinking light and easy, and there's a lot of prep work here. The maple vinaigrette sounds amazing, and the soup looks great, I'd order this at a restaurant.

Singh: Squash bisque scored major points in my book! I would have skipped the imitation crab meat and gone for the real thing. I loved that you also used the squash seeds to add more flavor and texture to the dish. The kale salad was also great, but this seems like two separate dishes instead of one cohesive dish. Please keep this in mind when you reach the finale cook-off. Great job.

Dzugan: This recipe had the most creative use for the wheat bread. I loved the idea of a bread bowl for the soup. I thought that the squash was used perfectly, as well as the wheat bread. This dish was absolutely beautiful. I loved the presentation. Though the recipe for the bread bowl sounded fantastic, I had a harder time understanding the instructions to recreate it. I also wasn't quite sure what the sliced elements were below the salad in the picture. I thought that they might have been squash and apples but saw in the recipe they were listed as small cubes. I thought the soup in this recipe sounded phenomenal. I loved the idea of adding the crabmeat to the squash bisque and roasting the squash seeds for garnish. The maple vinaigrette lacked salt and would be very sweet. I wasn't quite sure how that would translate with the fried sardines.

In Round 4, Ben Blake of Winfield created a dish of Roasted Kabocha Squash and Kale toasted Ravioli with a Spicy Lemon Sardine Cream Sauce and Toasted Parmesan Bread Crumbs. Daniel White | Staff Photographer
Ben Blake's Roasted Kabocha Squash and Kale toasted Ravioli with a Spicy Lemon Sardine Cream Sauce and Toasted Parmesan Bread Crumbs

Murillo: Great job Ben, your dish looks very tasteful to try out, and I never had spicy lemon cream pizza sauce, but I am sure to try it out one day.

Engle: Are you serious, this has to be one of the most creative recipes I can recall in my years of judging. And I have never received a suggestion for a "Spicy Lemon Sardine Cream Sauce" … and then you add bacon? OMG! Yummy!

Andrade: This looks and sounds delicious, though filling 80 ravioli is a lot of work for a dinner. I might have opted for stuffed shells vs. stuffing the ravioli to ease the prep a bit. Overall it works well, good for a fall dinner.

Singh: Great job Ben. You were able to combine anchovies and squash in the best possible way. This mystery box was a definite challenge, and you found a great way to incorporate all of the ingredients together.

Dzugan: I loved the synopsis of this entry. I thought that using the inspiration of pumpkin kale ravioli was an excellent thought process for the ingredients. I loved the idea of using the squash and kale in the ravioli and incorporating the sardines into the sauce. I thought the wheat bread crumbs sounded excellent, but the only thing I would have liked to see was the use of the wheat bread in the garlic bread side. I thought the plating looked wonderful. Using a black plate to help highlight the other colors was a great choice. I liked the three rows of ravioli and line of sauce. The only thing I thought was misplaced in composition was the garlic bread. This was an incredibly easy recipe to follow. The point deduction is due to the difficulty of using the won ton wrapper, though honestly, I think that would add a wonderful texture element to this dish.

I thought this was a very well-rounded recipe. The ingredients in this round were difficult, and this sounded very appetizing.

Spicy Sardine Kale Meatballs is the recipe created by Cook of the Week Challenge contestant Elizabeth Shuttler of Inverness. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
Elizabeth Schuttler's Spicy Sardine and Kale Meatballs on Top of Homemade Wheat Bread Pasta with a Creamy Kabocha Squash Sauce and Garnish of Crispy Kale and Bread Crumbs

Murillo: Great job Elizabeth, I really like your dish. I like your creativity, and your dish looks very tasty.

Engle: I'm a pasta lover, and fresh pasta with spicy sardines and kale meatballs is a winner. I would have loved for you to use some of the Tapatio Sauce in the making of the meatballs to give it a little more kick … but that is a personal preference.

Andrade: I'm a huge fan of meatballs, and I think it was a great way to go with these ingredients. The pasta sauce sounds delicious as well, but I'd skip the homemade pasta and serve it on toasted bread or crostini.

Singh: I love this home cook. You used all of the ingredients in the right way. You made every mystery box ingredient shine with the anchovies and wheat bread in the meatballs to the squash in the sauce as well as the kale garnish. Overall amazing job and can't wait to see you at the cook-off.

Dzugan: This was an incredibly creative use of these ingredients. Using the kale in the squash sauce, as an element in the sardine meatballs, and as a colorful garnish was incredibly creative. Also grinding down the wheat bread into a flour was fantastic. I also thought it was interesting that both the kale leaf and the stem were used in this recipe, and were used in three different applications. I thought this was beautifully plated. I loved that the contestant chose to plate the pasta individually with each meatball. The color in this dish stood out as well. This recipe was beautiful, but I think for another cook to make it might be slightly difficult. The meatballs, squash, kale garnish and bread crumbs all sounded pretty easy to make, but the element that I found most difficult was the wheat pasta. This was a tough round, but I thought this was a very well thought out entry. The only thing I would question would be the salt content. The sardines, prosciutto and Parmesan all are elements that are quite salty, but I did notice that very little salt was added in addition to this recipe.

Timbale of Roasted Squash And Sardine Mousseline With Quick Pickled Kale is the dish contestant Joe Wachter of Lake Zurich made for the Cook of the Week Challenge judges. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer
Joe Wachter's Timbale Of Roasted Squash And Sardine Mousseline With Quick-Pickled Kale

Murillo: Great job Joe, like the creativity, but I was expecting something more in this week's challenge.

Engle: I have to try this because it sounds delicious and I don't know that I have ever enjoyed "timbale" before. Then you are using a sardine mousseline … the flavors of pickled kale and spicy sardines just might be incredible. Nicely done!

Andrade: This is definitely creative, and until I opened this recipe I hadn't ever heard of a timbale. Though it seems a bit labor intensive, I do think it was a creative use of the ingredients.

Singh: Wow! What a fancy dish. I think you have done an excellent job in using various culinary techniques to create a delicious dish. I wish you used the wheat bread more uniquely and I believe the ease of preparation was a bit more difficult for a home cook to follow. Also, what was the recipe for the pickled kale?

Dzugan: I loved the idea of the quickly pickled kale. I thought this was the most creative use of kale. This was an incredibly creative use of the ingredients, and I thought each was transformed in a great way. I thought the plating of this was elegant. I liked how the pickled kale was incorporated into the plating. This recipe was the most creative, but I had trouble following it and felt like it would be slightly difficult for another cook to recreate it. This actually sounds like it would be delicious. I was impressed with the pickling flavors as well as the flavor profile of the timbale.